Dan Gilbert: The surprising science of happiness (1)
When you have 21 minutes to speak, two million years seems like a really long time.
But evolutionarily, two million years is nothing. And yet in two million years, the human brain has nearly tripled in mass, going from the one-and-a-quarter pound brain of our ancestor here, Habilis, to the almost three-pound meatloaf that everybody here has between their ears. What is it about a big brain that nature was so eager for every one of us to have one? Well, it turns out when brains triple in size, they don't just get three times bigger; they gain new structures.
And one of the main reasons our brain got so big is because it got a new part, called the "frontal lobe." Particularly, a part called the "pre-frontal cortex." What does a pre-frontal cortex do for you that should justify the entire architectural overhaul of the human skull in the blink of evolutionary time? It turns out the pre-frontal cortex does lots of things, but one of the most important things it does is an experience simulator.
Pilots practice in flight simulators so that they don't make real mistakes in planes. Human beings have this marvelous adaptation that they can actually have experiences in their heads before they try them out in real life. This is a trick that none of our ancestors could do, and that no other animal can do quite like we can. It's a marvelous adaptation. It's up there with opposable thumbs and standing upright and language as one of the things that got our species out of the trees and into the shopping mall. (Laughter)
All of you have done this.
Ben and Jerry's doesn't have liver-and-onion ice cream, and it's not because they whipped some up, tried it and went, "Yuck." It's because, without leaving your armchair, you can simulate that flavor and say "yuck" before you make it. Let's see how your experience simulators are working.
Let's just run a quick diagnostic before I proceed with the rest of the talk. Here's two different futures that I invite you to contemplate. You can try to simulate them and tell me which one you think you might prefer. One of them is winning the lottery. This is about 314 million dollars. And the other is becoming paraplegic. (Laughter)
Just give it a moment of thought.
You probably don't feel like you need a moment of thought. Interestingly, there are data on these two groups of people, data on how happy they are.
And this is exactly what you expected, isn't it? But these aren't the data. I made these up! These are the data.
You failed the pop quiz, and you're hardly five minutes into the lecture. Because the fact is that a year after losing the use of their legs, and a year after winning the lotto, lottery winners and paraplegics are equally happy with their lives. Don't feel too bad about failing the first pop quiz, because everybody fails all of the pop quizzes all of the time.
The research that my laboratory has been doing, that economists and psychologists around the country have been doing, has revealed something really quite startling to us, something we call the "impact bias," which is the tendency for the simulator to work badly. For the simulator to make you believe that different outcomes are more different than in fact they really are. From field studies to laboratory studies, we see that winning or losing an election, gaining or losing a romantic partner, getting or not getting a promotion, passing or not passing a college test, on and on, have far less impact, less intensity and much less duration than people expect them to have.
This almost floors me -- a recent study showing how major life traumas affect people suggests that if it happened over three months ago, with only a few exceptions, it has no impact whatsoever on your happiness. Why?
Because happiness can be synthesized. Sir Thomas Brown wrote in 1642, "I am the happiest man alive. I have that in me that can convert poverty to riches, adversity to prosperity. I am more invulnerable than Achilles; fortune hath not one place to hit me." What kind of remarkable machinery does this guy have in his head? Well, it turns out it's precisely the same remarkable machinery that all off us have.
Human beings have something that we might think of as a "psychological immune system." A system of cognitive processes, largely non-conscious cognitive processes, that help them change their views of the world, so that they can feel better about the worlds in which they find themselves. Like Sir Thomas, you have this machine. Unlike Sir Thomas, you seem not to know it. We synthesize happiness, but we think happiness is a thing to be found.
Now, you don't need me to give you too many examples of people synthesizing happiness, I suspect. Though I'm going to show you some experimental evidence, you don't have to look very far for evidence. As a challenge to myself, since I say this once in a while in lectures, I took a copy of the New York Times and tried to find some instances of people synthesizing happiness.
Here are three guys synthesizing happiness. "I am so much better off physically, financially, emotionally, mentally and almost every other way." "I don't have one minute's regret. It was a glorious experience." "I believe it turned out for the best. Who are these characters who are so damn happy?
The first one is Jim Wright. Some of you are old enough to remember: he was the chairman of the House of Representatives and he resigned in disgrace when this young Republican named Newt Gingrich found out about a shady book deal he had done. He lost everything. The most powerful Democrat in the country lost everything. He lost his money, he lost his power. What does he have to say all these years later? "I am so much better off physically, financially, mentally and in almost every other way." What other way would there be to be better off? Vegetably? Minerally? Animally? He's pretty much covered them there. Moreese Bickham is somebody you've never heard of.
Moreese Bickham uttered these words upon being released. He was 78 years old. He'd spent 37 years in a Louisiana State Penitentiary for a crime he didn't commit. [He was ultimately released for good behavior halfway through his sentence.] What did he say about his experience? "I don't have one minute's regret. It was a glorious experience." Glorious! He is not saying, "Well, there were some nice guys. They had a gym." "Glorious," a word we usually reserve for something like a religious experience. Harry S. Langerman uttered these words, and he's somebody you might have known but didn't, because in 1949 he read a little article in the paper about a hamburger stand owned by two brothers named McDonalds.
And he thought, "That's a really neat idea!" So he went to find them. They said, "We can give you a franchise on this for 3,000 bucks." Harry went back to New York, asked his brother, an investment banker, to loan him the $3,000, and his brother's immortal words were, "You idiot, nobody eats hamburgers." He wouldn't lend him the money, and of course, six months later Ray Kroc had exactly the same idea. It turns out people do eat hamburgers, and Ray Kroc, for a while, became the richest man in America. And then finally -- you know, the best of all possible worlds -- some of you recognize this young photo of Pete Best, who was the original drummer for the Beatles, until they, you know, sent him out on an errand and snuck away and picked up Ringo on a tour.
Well, in 1994, when Pete Best was interviewed -- yes, he's still a drummer; yes, he's a studio musician -- he had this to say: "I'm happier than I would have been with the Beatles. Okay.
There's something important to be learned from these people, and it is the secret of happiness. Here it is, finally to be revealed. First: accrue wealth, power, and prestige, then lose it. (Laughter)
Second: spend as much of your life in prison as you possibly can.
Third: make somebody else really, really rich.
And finally: never ever join the Beatles. (Laughter)
Now I, like Ze Frank, can predict your next thought, which is, "Yeah, right." Because when people synthesize happiness, as these gentlemen seem to have done, we all smile at them, but we kind of roll our eyes and say, "Yeah right, you never really wanted the job." "Oh yeah, right. You really didn't have that much in common with her, and you figured that out just about the time she threw the engagement ring in your face." We smirk because we believe that synthetic happiness is not of the same quality as what we might call "natural happiness. What are these terms?
Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we wanted, and synthetic happiness is what we make when we don't get what we wanted. And in our society, we have a strong belief that synthetic happiness is of an inferior kind. Why do we have that belief?
Well, it's very simple. What kind of economic engine would keep churning if we believed that not getting what we want could make us just as happy as getting it? With all apologies to my friend Matthieu Ricard, a shopping mall full of Zen monks is not going to be particularly profitable, because they don't want stuff enough. (Laughter)
I want to suggest to you that synthetic happiness is every bit as real and enduring as the kind of happiness you stumble upon when you get exactly what you were aiming for.
I'm a scientist, so I'm going to do this not with rhetoric, but by marinating you in a little bit of data. Let me first show you an experimental paradigm that is used to demonstrate the synthesis of happiness among regular old folks.
And this isn't mine. It's a 50-year-old paradigm called the "free choice paradigm." It's very simple. You bring in, say, six objects, and you ask a subject to rank them from the most to the least liked. In this case, because this experiment uses them, these are Monet prints. So, everybody can rank these Monet prints from the one they like the most, to the one they like the least. Now we give you a choice: "We happen to have some extra prints in the closet. We're going to give you one as your prize to take home. We happen to have number three and number four," we tell the subject. This is a bit of a difficult choice, because neither one is preferred strongly to the other, but naturally, people tend to pick number three because they liked it a little better than number four. Sometime later -- it could be 15 minutes; it could be 15 days -- the same stimuli are put before the subject, and the subject is asked to re-rank the stimuli.
"Tell us how much you like them now." What happens? Watch as happiness is synthesized. This is the result that has been replicated over and over again. You're watching happiness be synthesized. Would you like to see it again? Happiness! "The one I got is really better than I thought! That other one I didn't get sucks!" That's the synthesis of happiness. (Laughter)